The Soda Fountain at Hills

American, Ice cream
$$$$ ($14 and under)

Editorial Review

The small white sign touting the lunch special outside Hills Drug Store in Easton looks out of place, especially after I peer through the window and spot only the usual trappings of a drugstore: rows of neatly stacked bottles and packages, a card rack, seniors waiting to have their prescriptions filled. The Soda Fountain at Hills is tucked away in the back of the longtime, family-run business, with seven stools lined up before an ice cream case topped with fresh cinnamon rolls. A skylight intensifies the sunniness of the tidy, mint-green dining room, which can seat 28 people at a handful of tables and a single booth. Yellowed newspaper clippings shed light on the pharmacy's place in town, and a community bulletin board is kind enough to promote a lunch competitor.

If "Mayberry, R.F.D." ever had a cafe, this would be it.

"Where are you from?" a waitress wants to know after she takes our order. Her tone is friendly and curious; everyone around us -- the mom with the little girl, the elderly man picking up soup to go -- appears to be a regular (good luck finding a seat at high noon). It's easy to understand the devotion. A Hills hamburger, top round beef supported on a terrific French roll, oozes juice and sports a nice char, and its skin-on french fries actually taste like potatoes. Actually, all of the sides I try are class acts. Onion rings the size of coasters show off sweet onions and a delicate tempura-style batter that barely clings to each slice. (One reason the fried potatoes and onions taste so true: Those vegetables are the only things that go into the deep fryer.) The best coleslaw I've had in recent memory -- crunchy, creamy, sweet, fresh -- surfaces here. Chicken marengo, the day's special, is a bit of a snooze, but dessert makes up for it. A malted milkshake is actually two malted milkshakes, counting the tall metal cup of extra shake that shows up, and the ginger cookies hint at a pro at the oven.

That would be Stephen Mangasarian, who won praise for his high-end cooking at the late Restaurant Columbia in Easton and took over the soda fountain -- which has been around in some form since 1928 -- last November, following a months-long makeover. "I wanted to try my hand at classic American food" and re-create "what I remember growing up in the '60s," says the chef, a quality-conscious type who bothers to bake the bread for his grilled cheese sandwiches and whips up rib-stickers such as brisket and lasagna as daily specials.

His good work at Hills tempts me to check out his other business, a deli carryout around the corner called the Lazy Lunch -- which turns out to be the "competitor" highlighted on the soda fountain's bulletin board.

-- Tom Sietsema (June 8, 2008)